Women wielding power in India

Reforms set aside posts for females, lower castes in village governments


CHIJARASI, India -- A new government-financed study, based on fieldwork in 180 villages in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, has found that while a third of the women who are heading their village council, or panchayat, are just rubber stamps for their husbands, two-thirds are engaged in learning the ropes and exercising power.

Like men, women panchayat leaders are now involved in obtaining village land for schools, selecting families who will qualify for government housing, and deciding how to distribute brick lanes, latrines and electricity.

Almost a million women have been elected to village governing councils since India adopted a constitutional amendment in 1993 that set aside one-third of all panchayat seats and village chiefs' positions for women, and set aside a percentage of those for women from the lowest rungs of the caste system.

This epic social experiment is playing out in more than 500,000 villages that are home to more than 600 million people -- about one of every 10 people on Earth. In many North Indian villages like this one, women who are expected to veil their faces and submit to male elders are now challenging centuries-old, feudal hierarchies.

"The government has turned power upside down," said Alam Singh, a Brahmin farmer who was village head before Rani, an illiterate woman from the washermen's caste, took over. "The government is making these people sit on top of us. We are the rulers, but now she is ruling."

Scorned by the upper-caste Brahmins who have long dominated this small village, Rani -- who like many lower-caste women goes by only one name -- boldly declares, "I am the boss."

But whether she can hold on to the post is another matter. While a third of the seats on each panchayat are permanently reserved for women, the panchayat-head slots for women rotate to different villages every five years, when new elections are held.

In the next election, Rani's seat will no longer be reserved for a low-caste woman. If she seeks re-election, she will have to run against candidates from the land-owning Brahmin elite who have always been in charge.

The southern state of Karnataka pioneered the use of a women's quota on village councils in the early 1980s as a means of giving village women a political toehold.

In the late 1980s, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi -- the first and so far the only woman to be prime minister of India -- picked up the idea and proposed it on a national level.

In 1992, Parliament -- then 93 percent male -- passed a version of the panchayat amendment that retained the one-third set-aside for women, with lower-caste women represented in proportion to their percentage of the population. A year later, it went into effect.

Other governments and political parties -- in Peru, Argentina, Germany and Belgium -- are experimenting with quotas for women's political participation, but India's effort is by far the largest.

"This is one of the best innovations in grass-roots democracy in the world," said Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women.

Pub Date: 5/03/99

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